Earlier this week Jürgen Klopp had to test himself against the rich Tony Pulis, emerging from his battle with a point to show for it. Yesterday he faced the actual Tony Pulis and Liverpool went up against another one of the so-called ‘lesser teams’ that we’ve struggled to cope with in the past. Would we be able to break down a team that specialises in the ‘low block’, practicing it week-in, week-out? Or would this be the moment that the Reds stumbled and fell?
The extent to which Klopp has turned things around at Anfield really can’t be under-estimated. It’s not just the football that is different, with the mentality now strengthened to the point that we don’t allow set-backs to affect us as much as we have in the past. This was another one of those games that comes under the headline of ‘might have drawn or lost in the past’. But what were the major take-aways from a hard-fought win?
Our Attack Is Sensational
Liverpool’s attack might be the best in the Premier League. Whilst Manchester City have some brilliant players in the likes of Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, our frontline is the stuff of nightmares for defenders. There is no question in my mind that City’s attack will continue to develop and grow, but right now ours is already there.
The inter-change of Mané, Firmino and Coutinho is just brilliant. Opposition defenders don’t know where they are going to be or who it is that they should be following and the transition from defence to attack is a thing of wonder. The problem that teams face is that if they push forward for a goal then they leave space and our attackers know how to take advantage of it. Time and again the likes of Milner and Lallana played a ball into acres of room and one of our forward players was straight onto it.
Can’t remember what life was like before Mane, Firmino and Coutinho. Don’t want to remember it either.
— Sam McGuire (@SamMcGuire90) October 22, 2016
The only thing that will concern Klopp about our attacking play is that we are perhaps not being clinical enough. Our defensive issues, which I’ll talk about in more depth shortly, mean that we could have drawn this match yesterday having been the better team for 90 minutes. We could have finished the game with a 3, 4 or 5 goal advantage and it wouldn’t have flattered our attacking play. Yet we didn’t, and that is something that could could come back to haunt us in the future.
When Match of the Day began last night we were second in the table only on goal difference. In 2013-2014 the loss to Chelsea wouldn’t have stopped us from winning the league if we had a better goal difference that Manchester City that season. We don’t want to be in a similar position at the end of this campaign, feeling as though we need to score ten past a team like Crystal Palace when a win of any kind will do.
17 – Roberto Firmino has had a hand in 17 goals (12 goals, 5 assists) for Liverpool in the PL in 2016; more than any other player. Crucial.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 22, 2016
As I’ve said before, only one team in the history of the Premier League has gone the entire season unbeaten. The likelihood is, therefore, that you will lose matches during a campaign. What Liverpool need ensure is that any matches we lose or draw are ones that we have been out-played in or under-performed during. We do not want to give a team of yard-dogs like West Brom the chance to take points off us when we’ve battered them for the rest of the game. Our attack is good enough to stop that from happening and some of our attacking play against the Baggies was breath-taking. Now we need to add more clinically to our game to make sure.
Here’s something not being talked about anywhere near enough: Liverpool’s defence is excellent. Only one clean sheet in the league so far suggests otherwise, of course, but the stats don’t lie. The Reds have conceded less shots on goal per game than any other team in the Premier League. Across Europe, only Bayern Munich and Juventus are conceding fewer per game than we are. (Thanks to @basstunedtored on Twitter for that).
Yet we are coming undone time and time again on set-pieces. It is now a major problem, not just for the players but for the crowd, too. When we conceded the free-kick that led to the goal the bloke I sit next to on the Kop said, “They haven’t been in this but we’ll concede and put ourselves under pressure now”. You could sense the anxiety swirl around Anfield that we would concede and that has to be transferring itself onto the players.
LFC cumulative home stats vs opponents in the 2016/17 PL:
On Target: 33-6
Clear-cut chances: 13-4
Box shots: 44-13
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) October 22, 2016
It feels as if we concede every time there’s a set-piece nowadays. Loris Karius has been our first-choice goalkeeper for the last five matches and has yet to make a save. During that time, however, he’s conceded three goals. That tells you everything you need to know about our defensive strengths and weaknesses.
As a side note on the goalkeeper; I find it odd that people keep saying ‘he hasn’t had to make a save so we can’t judge him’, as though he is in no way responsible for it. Goalkeepers don’t exist in isolation. He is part of the defensive unit. Is it not possible that he is also part of the reason that we’re not conceding chances? That he’s communicating with the defence and marshalling them from the backline? He’s not a mute, after all. The more he plays with them the more likely it is that they’ll get better, too.
The arguments around the goalkeeping situation will continue to grow until Karius puts in a match-winning performance and has something to hang his hat on and for the crowd to get behind. The reality is, though, that the problems we face appear to be systemic. Whichever goalkeeper we have between the sticks we look dodgy at dealing with crosses and set-pieces. Let’s not pretend that Mignolet was the most solid and reliable player that we’ve ever had at coping with high-balls and so on.
That’s another game Karius has played where he’s not had a save to make. That’s five now. Sort set pieces out and we may never concede again
— Philip Blundell (@PhilBlundell) October 22, 2016
Perhaps it’s taking them time to adapt to Klopp’s desired man-marking and it will come with practice and work on the training ground. Maybe the fact that we can’t take decent set-pieces ourselves means that we aren’t getting to practice defending them enough. Who knows? The only thing for certain is that aren’t doing well enough and if we can get it sorted then we’ll put ourself in a brilliant position to win the league.
One thing I will say is that West Brom’s goal should have been disallowed for offside. They had one of their grocks stood in front of Karius and blocking both his run and his sight of the player. To suggest he wasn’t interfering in play is a nonsense. There was also plenty of grappling in the box from their players, climbing all over ours. If the Football Association are going to crack down on that sort of thing then they simply have to be consistent across the entire division or it’s ludicrous.
Joel Matip Is The Real Deal
Somehow Liverpool did what no other ream managed this summer and brought in Joel Matip. The Cameroonian has been genuinely excellent since his arrival from FC Shalke 04 and the fact that we got him on a free transfer is even more outrageous.
Any look at the excellent work of Paul Tomkins will show you that not all transfers work out. Matip could have come over and struggled to adapt to the English game, something that the player himself was concerned about once he’d signed his pre-contract agreement. He declared that he was planning to hit the gym in order to bulk up so that he could cope with the physicality of the Premier League.
Both Chelsea and City wanted ball-playing centre-backs and both decided to overlook Matip for whatever reason. Fools.
— Sam McGuire (@SamMcGuire90) October 22, 2016
It feels unnatural to talk of Liverpool’s defence with such confidence. We haven’t had reliable enough players for far too long. Daniel Agger had ability on the ball but was too injury prone to be depended upon. Martin Skrtel was the softest hard-man since the days of Vinnie Jones. Dejan Lovren, now a man re-born, was nowhere near the defender he had been at Southampton when he arrived at Anfield and played in Brendan Rodgers’ overly-exposed defence.
Perhaps when both players were on their day Skrtel and Agger could rival Lovren and Matip, but even with the small sample size available it feels as though the 25-year-old as taken to the Liverpool backline like a duck to water and his performances have been genuinely impressive. He has now come up against the snide of Diego Costa, the consistency of pre-injury Harry Kane and the alehouse tactics of Manchester United and West Brom and has yet to be found wanting. Not a bad start to life in the Premier League.
He will make a mistake or two before the season is out. That’s fine, even the likes of Lionel Messi don’t get it right 100% of the time. When it happens we as fans need to shrug it off and give him the benefit of the doubt because of just how good he’s been so far this season.
One quick word about Liverpool’s ability under Klopp to ignore the previous conventions. In the past there have been question marks about whether we could beat teams who set out to frustrate us. We’ve now taken six points from Hull and West Brom who wanted to do exactly that.
Another question mark in the past has come around whether we can ‘do it against the best teams’. We’ve faced Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea away from home and taken seven points from nine.
Next week we return to the scene of that 3-3 draw that confirmed the end of our title hopes and face a former player, with the old adage of ‘ex-players always score against us’ ringing in our ears. May we keep on smashing the conventions until the Premier League trophy is in Jordan Henderson’s hands.